10 Places and the Words They Inspired

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1. Buncombe County, North Carolina

Just before the U.S. House was set to vote on allowing Missouri into the Union in 1820, North Carolina Rep. Felix Walker requested a chance to speak. When his exhausted colleagues tried to cut him off, he told them that his speech wasn't actually for the House at all, but for his constituents in Buncombe County. It's unclear whether he was actually able to give the speech (in some versions of the story, he did; in others, he was cut off and simply had it printed in the newspaper), but the eventual text was nonsense to most observers and had little to do with the debate at hand. Soon, journalists and politicians were using the name of the county -- Buncombe -- to mean frivolous talk, a word that eventually evolved to "bunkum" and then "bunk."

2. The Maeander River

The Ancient Greeks named the river that runs through southwestern Turkey to the Aegean Sea the "Maeander River." Today it's known as the Buyuk Menderes River. But the original Greek name lives on in the English word "meander," or "to wander," after the river's many twists and turns.

3. Tuxedo Park, New York

The Tuxedo Park village in Orange County, New York, was home to a high society crowd around the turn of the 20th century, with names like Colgate, Astor and JP Morgan (even etiquette expert Emily Post spent time in Tuxedo Park and has been said to have based some of her work on the culture she saw there). But the town's biggest legacy is in the formal dinner jacket for men that bears its name. There are a number of stories about how the tail-less jacket became branded the "tuxedo," but they all boil down to the style being popularized in the town, then brought to the rest of New York.

4 and 5. Genoa, Italy, and Nimes, France

Genoa, Italy, became known for producing a certain type of cotton cloth. Sailors fond of the corduroy pants produced with the fabric named them after the city, calling them "jeans." The French would then attempt to recreate the fabric. They were unsuccessful, but one cloth made in the city of Nimes caught on for its similarities to the Genoa product. The new fabric would be called "Serge di Nimes," eventually shortened to just "denim."

6. Soli, Cilicia

Ancient Greeks looked down on the residents of Soli, one of their colonies in Cilicia, for speaking their own form of the Attic dialect. The Greeks would later begin to refer to a dialectical difference or error as "soloikizo" (the word shows up in Aristotle's "On Rhetoric"), leading to the English word "solecism" for a grammatical misuse. "Between you and I" and "irregardless" would be English examples of solecisms.

7. The Isle of Lesbos

Lesbos island in the Aegean Sea was home to the Greek poet Sappho, whose work centered on love and beauty applying to both genders. It was her writing about women that led to her island's name being associated with homosexuality and by 1890, the word "lesbian" was appearing in medical dictionaries to describe a relationship between two women. The island has now become a popular gay tourist spot, despite attempts by natives to dispel the reputation; three residents even went to court seeking to ban the use of the word to describe gay women, although the suit was thrown out in 2008.

8. Paisley, Scotland

The teardrop- (or mango-) shaped design known as paisley has a long history of use in Indian culture, both on jewelry and in textiles. When traders from India in the 17th century began bringing back Indian products, the design became very popular and some European producers started incorporating it into their work. Production eventually became largely centered around the town of Paisley in Scotland, where by 1800 several weavers were making scarves adorned with the pattern -- and lending it its Western name.

9. Bikini Atoll

The Bikini Atoll, a group of 23 islands in the Marshall Islands, was best known as a nuclear bomb testing ground, home to some 23 tests between 1946 and 1958. It was that reputation that led to French automotive engineer Louis Reard to borrow the islands' name for his two-piece swimsuit. When he first produced the suit for a French clothing firm, legend has it he named it the "bikini" because the impact it would have on men would mirror the force of an atomic bomb.

10. Bengal, India

The name of the quintessentially California house -- the one-storied bungalow –- is actually derived from Hindi. The word comes from the Hindi word “Bangla,” meaning literally “of Bengal” in reference to the then-Indian province. The word eventually came to refer to the houses that were typical of the region and was brought into English as “bungalow.”

Buncombe County picture by Flickr user HappyMac; Paisley picture by Flickr.com user Cheesy42

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September 11, 2012 - 9:58pm
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